Some Issues for Study and Reflection – Harish Puri


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ਗ਼ਦਰ ਲਹਿਰ ਬਾਰੇ ਇਹ ਲੇਖ ਅੰਗਰੇਜ਼ੀ ਵਿਚ ਹੀ ਲਿਖਿਆ ਗਿਆ ਹੈ। ‘ਹੁਣ’ ਇਸ ਨੂੰ ਉਵੇਂ ਹੀ ਛਾਪ ਰਿਹਾ ਹੈ। -ਸੰਪਾਦਕ

For a long time, I have not conducted any further research on the Ghadar movement. It is my regret that in this ambitiously planned seminar, I have very little new to offer. However, I have felt that the research base of our present understanding of this great struggle is yet rather partial and weak. There are gaps in our knowledge. There are issues which may well be examined from different other perspectives. History, it is said, is not one story, but many. For example a recent Ph.D. thesis on the Ghadar Movement at Duke University, USA, submitted in June 2008, reminds us about other different perspectives. It is titled “The Hajj to Utopia; Antisystemic Ideologies through the Lens of the South Asian Diaspora, 1905-1930”. The subject of study or the title itself is eloquent. The titles of the first five of its chapters are similarly indicative of a new way of looking at things. These are: The Anarchist Ghadar, The Syndicalist Ghadar, The Nationalist Ghadar, The Communist Ghadar and the Islamist Ghadar. Duke University’s department of History has a reputation for its focus on what is described as Radical History. Its research journal — Radical History Review has earned a distinction for a different orientation. The dissertation claimed to be cast in a radical history perspective. It focused on the richness and variety of the ingredients and the facets, of the sources from which the movement drew, and combined diverse concepts and imaginations without constraints of any orthodoxy. That kind of eclecticism was very different from the later period when the Kirti Ghadarites thought there was one line of thought and action which was brought from Soviet Russia. My purpose here is not to discuss the details of that thesis but to indicate different ways of viewing the movement, in the sense of simultaneity of different streams of thought in the propaganda literature and activities of the activists moving about as Ghadarites on the world stage. We may not agree with her formulations or observations, but such studies would enrich the store house of our information and knowledge about the movement. So in consultation with Dr. Sarabjit Singh, it was thought that I may utilize this occasion to make some suggestions regarding areas and issues of further investigation and research on the Ghadar movement. That may also help us in the proceedings of the History Research Committee of the Desh Bhagat Yadgar Committee.
The emergence of the Ghadar movement and its distinctive character is attributed to the variety of influences on Punjabi immigrants in USA and Canada at the beginning of 20th century. In fact the rise of such a movement during that period was possible only abroad. It was inconceivable in Punjab and in fact anywhere in India at that time. Senior political leaders like Lokmanya Tilak advised promising radical young men during those days to go abroad for education and military training. A number of restless souls Madam Cama, Shyamji Krishnavarma, V. D. Savarkar, Sardarji Rana, Virendra Chattopadhyaya, Har Dayal, Taraknath Das, Bhupendranath Datt and others moved from one foreign country to an other, dreaming, learning, speculating, meeting revolutionaries from other countries and propagating action for change.
The Ghadar Movement was the product of a conjuncture of circumstances and ideas; “an improbable conjuncture”, as a distinguished writer put it, between the Punjabi immigrant workers and those traveling revolutionary young men and particularly Lala Har Dayal. Whereas the yearnings for some kind of political action for freedom of India appeared to have taken root in their minds earlier, it was their encounter with Har Dayal from March 1913 onwards that helped to inspire them and to shape their ideas of what was to be done. Most accounts referred to the paper Ghadar from 1st of November 1913. as the great educator, eye-opener and mobiliser for action. Everyone who came under the influence of Ghadar was significantly transformed within a short time, and became as G B Lal observed, “more secularized and more modernized”. When large numbers of them returned to India in the later part of 1914, they stood out as distinctively different from their fellows and other Punjabis. Leading men of Punjab thought these people had gone crazy or as the British officers said, they were infected with strange ideas of liberty and equality. Their readiness to do whatever they could for the cause dear to them, to sacrifice their lives, to bravely face and resist the most barbarous tortures in the Cellular Jail of Andamans and other jails in India with great dignity, became the stuff of legends. So was their steadfast commitment in their later lives. Not many historians and writers were inclined to give due respect to the knowledge-claims of these simple and semi-literate farmers and workers. Some of us who had the privilege of meeting some of the venerable Ghadari Babas were overwhelmed by their dreams and their passion for creating a new social and political order, their humanism and their steady commitment to struggle against every tyranny, in the most difficult circumstances. Professor Randhir Singh was perhaps the first among scholars to have interviewed a number of them; the one who captured with great sensitivity, the spirit of that daring to dream and struggle, in his book The Ghadar Heroes, published by PPH in 1945. Given that level of transformation of a significant number of ordinary people, one comes to look to the tremendous potential of that movement the kind of change that was possible. That is what made men like Bhagat Singh look at this movement as a primary source of inspiration for himself and others.
Whereas the incidents of racial discrimination; being called “coolies” and “dirty people”, generated a sense of shame and anger, no less important was the impact made by the air of modernity and freedom in USA. Discussing the Indian Revolutionaries Abroad, A. C. Bose made a significant point that “once released from traditional social restrictions and allegiances they found conditions in the new places conducive to a rapid transition to “progressive attitudes” well ahead of their sedentary countrymen” living in India. Har Dayal grew almost lyrical over the effect of that air on him ad other Indians. It was the time of open public propaganda and activities by groups of anarchists and revolutionary nationalists from a number of countries and of opportunities of open collaboration between them. The wider network of ideas and movements overlapped with every radical tendency of the time. The kind of open audacious propaganda for armed rebellion against British rule in India carried on by Har Dayal, and other radicals in public meetings and through the Ghadar, may not have been possible anywhere else. Those of the Ghadarites, who were living in other parts of the world and were instantly converted to the cause by the Ghadar propaganda or joined the struggle at the persuasion of their fellows returning from North America, may well have missed some of the finer facets of the whole environment and the spirit of the movement in the imagination of the leading figures. Even in USA that kind of freedom was not available after USA decided to join the War in 1917.
The politics of this movement was shaped by the range of ideas propagated by the Ghadar, regarding the objectives and methods of struggle as also the style and idiom of inspiring them. The distinctive aspect of this propaganda was its focus on action. Prominent among the cluster of ideas that broadly shaped a new political orientation may be viewed as under.

  1. A fundamental conviction that the foreign British rule in India was the greatest curse. Neither self dignity, nor dharma nor economic well-being was possible, so long as that rule continued. The foreign colonial rule must be finished.
  2. A direction to remove from their minds the thoughts of raj-bhagti, The British ruled through control over the minds. No more songs of loyalty and bravery of the Sikhs and of sacrifices in the wars fought by the British. Slavery of the mind — Ghulami ka Zehar was the worst thing. Liberation of mind must be the top priority.
  3. A great armed rebellion (Ghadar) was launched in India in 1857. Despite large scale participation and tremendous sacrifices, the Ghadar failed, because a section of the Sikhs of Punjab, came out to support the British. Another armed struggle should be launched with the help Indian soldiers of Native Army and with the support of the people. Ghadar is our Name and Ghadar is our purpose.
  4. A lot number of heroes had struggled for freedom and sacrificed their lives; many were still struggling. There was a juxtaposition of names such as — Bahadur Shah Zafar, Rani of Jhansi, Tantiya Tope, Mangal Pandey, Shivaji, Maharana Pratap and Guru Gobind Singh, Lokmanya Tilak and Aurobindo Ghosh, Kanhai Lal Datt, Madan Lal Dhingra, Master Amir Chand and Bal Mukand, Savarkar, Har Dayal, Barkatullah and Baba Deep Singh, Ram Singh and Ajit Singh. The Ghadarites were to be part of that constellation of Desh Bhagats.
  5. We are Indians — one nation. All of us Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Rajput, Pathans, Bengali, Maratha, Punjabi all sons of mother Bharat. That is our identity. The wily British trickster has tried to divide us. We have to defeat their design and take care of the toadies.
  6. We do not need Gurdwaras and temples, or religious priests and religious preachers; they only mislead and deflect us from our path. Our religion is deshbhakti. Ghadarites were not irreligious or atheists; gurdwaras were in fact the main centres of their activity; what they emphasized on was the primacy of the political programme.

All that constituted, what they described as rajneeti wala gyan, understanding of politics. A major section of all those who joined the movement not only remained free from sectarian and communal thinking but also condemned all those who talked in those terms.
The other part stressed, from day one, on action — What is to be done?
The line of action was suggested from Savarkar’s history of the 1857 uprising. Four of the most central directions were:
(i)Inspiration ‘Rise O’Patriots’, Rise; — inspiration was the key;(ii) patriotism was like religion from God worship of Bharat Mata;(iii) passion for earning martyrdom — martyrdom was viewed as redemptive, and (iv) liquidation of spies and traitors. The Ghadar gave a call to martyrs. In fact most of the ideas for action came from that book.
These included, propaganda actions to win the support of Indian people, winning over Indian soldiers of the Native Army, collecting weapons, manufacturing bombs, looting military arsenals and treasuries, killing the British and taking care of the spies and traitors.
The expected war between Germany and England started much earlier than stipulated; Har Dayal had been removed from the scene and Komagatamaru episode inflamed passions. The electric effect which the Ghadar propaganda had on Indians settled in different parts of the world was given to create an illusion that they were ready for revolution. Many of those who were present at the Sacramento meeting where it was decided to return to India for revolution conceded that while the passions were high, no body had a clear idea of the situation on the ground in India and about what was to be done Talking audaciously of going to destroy the British was considered a measure of their commitment and passion. They were Revolutionaries of will. To be used as instruments of such an epoch-making struggle for the most sacred and mighty cause was a matter sheer joy.
All that the thousands of returned Ghadarites, without needed planning and resources and, after large number of leading figures had been arrested on arrival, took to do was whatever seemed possible on those lines in an ad hoc ish manner. Some aspects of the preparation made under Rash Behari Bose’s leadership indicated what could have been possible. And what a tremendous price they paid in lives! While the explanation for failure was placed on the spy Kirpal Singh and the mistake committed in the Chabba dacoity, making the largest sacrifice of lives, suffering tortures in jails and the movement becoming a major source of inspiration to other Indians, became the defining glory of the movement.
That story of the movement has been broadly covered in most published accounts with somewhat varying emphasis and observations. Some work, though meagre, has been done on the Kirti phase of the change in ideology and programme of action under the influence of communism and guidance from Soviet Russia. “The Kirti”, as Sohan Singh Josh observed, “represented the continuation of the Ghadar movement in a new way”. However, there are aspects and issues on which further exploration and research is required.

One of these related to the search for the roots of that resistance in the cultural heritage and the forms of resistance in the actual living condition of the peasants in our villages, particularly during the British rule in Punjab. That may help us in understanding how and why the ideas thrown up by the Ghadar transformed these people in such a short time of just about 18 months of the first contact with Har Dayal, and less than 9 months after the first publication of the paper Ghadar. Besides the reference to Maharaj Singh, the Kookas and Ajit Singh’s Bharat Mata Society and the peasant political resistance of 1907 what were the less articulated reserves of resistance among the people in our villages? Three kinds of instances that we know about provide a hint of what kind of exploration may provide some clues.
(i) Signs of wide-spread resentment and resistance related to administrative measures to deal with the epidemic of plague. In an article on “Punjab and the Sikhs through the Prism of Plague”, Ian Catanach pointed to several instances of public resistance against the police cordons, house to house searches and other kinds of highhandedness of administrative officials. Punjab had the first plague epidemic in 1897 and many more thereafter. According to the author, from the province’s two earliest cases in April 1897 . . . to the end of 1918 — plague killed about three million Punjabis”. In 1904 reports were filed about some Punjab villages losing 50 or even 70 per cent of their population at the time of frequent occurrences of plague. It was mainly in the rural areas and the population affected consisted mostly of sturdy Jat Sikhs. First overt resistance against the administration took place at village Bhangal near Garhshankar in 1898, where, (as mentioned in a telegram from Punjab to Government of India, Home Department), some lambardars were arrested, but were ‘rescued by a mob numbering about one thousand, partly collected from other villages’. At that time it was an area of Muslim Rajputs. Official reports mentioned “organized conspiracy’in Garhshankar tehsil. “Nervous police in Garhshankar town opened fire without orders to do so. Nine men were killed and 35 wounded”. (Report by C H James cited Catanach, p.190). Apparently the crowd’s reaction was against hustling and plundering of headmen and other villagers by constables and other menial functionaries. In 1998 Nawan Shahar Tehsil was also afflicted. In 1901 the plague extended to districts of Sialkot and Gurdaspur. At a place called Sankhatra in Zaffarwal Tehsil, a crowd of people pounced upon a Naib Tehsildar, killed him and burnt his body, allegedly for his oppressive behaviour directed against women. At Shahzada , also in Zaffarwal tehsil, one of the cordon levies was furiously attacked by a crowd composed of Jat Sikhs, armed with sticks and in some cases gandasas, chavis and even swords. Sikh Jats from Barra Dulla in Shakargarh Tehsil in Gurdaspur district had promised assistance in case of need. These seemed to be autonomous rural revolts.
(ii) A clue to another form of resistance is available in Bhai Randhir Singh’s reaction to his own personal experience. He was with the Plague administration in 1902 where he experienced a good deal of petty corruption. His experience led him to decline an offer of permanent employment as Tehsildar, because he “began to see British imperialism as something that “swindled the people”. He claimed to have told a British deputy commissioner who tried to persude him to accept the offer, that associating with such a regime would be ”to lose all my character and spiritual future”.
(iii) Reports of Frank Popham Young, who was then acting as provincial settlement commissioner, about the canal colonies agitation, that the leadership of the agitation had come from such people as “retired Munsifs, postal officials, subedar Majors, and police inspectors”. He believed that many agriculturists in the colonies ‘mostly Jat Sikh, in close connection with the Native Army, were among the most violent. He also believed that Samudri tehsil of Lyallpur district was “ the centre of the most openly avowed hostility to British rule, so far as the agricultural community is concerned”.. Ajit Singh, in his speech at Batala of 21st April, was reported to have told the rally that lakhs of people were dying of plague. It was better to die for their country than to die of plague.
My point is that there is need to explore the seeds in the different forms of resistance in the peasantry in Punjab, including the weapons that the weak used in resistance against injustice, The magic of Har Dayal words in the Ghadar, the secret of so sudden a transformation, may be related to their resonance in the experience or memory of his audience and readers in distant places. .
Professor Jagmohan who is going to present a paper on the history of resistance from 1857 on wards may point to more instances of protest and resistance.

Secondly, we may consider some of the gaps. Whereas the movement became largely a movement of the Punjabi expatriates and it is they who came to India to launch Ghadar, there were others who were closely connected. There is need explore more for reliable information on the activities of Berlin-India Committee and its relation with the German and Turkish governments, as also the connection with other groups and intelligence agencies who had their own agendas. Information on many of those who operated under the name of the Ghadar party —such as Taraknath Das, Har Dayal, Khankhoje, Virendranath Chattopadhyaya Barkatullah, Ubeidullah Sindhi and Mahindra Pratap may enrich us with different other stories of Ghadar movement.
One of the major leaders of this movement, Baba Prithvi Singh Azad stated in his autobiography that since a big section of the Ghadarites turned towards communism, the others who did not, for example even prominent leaders such Ram Chandra, Bhai Bhagwan Singh and Jagat Ram Hariana, were ignored by the official historian. The reference was to Sehansara’s Ghadar Party da Itihas. He thought that the murder of Ram Chandra was the result of factional feud and charges levelled against him were factually wrong and an afterthought.
There is reference to a number of branches or addas of the party in different parts of the world. There is need to know more about their composition, leadership, concrete activities, their autonomy in action etc. etc.

Though some effort has gone into the history of the second phase, the Kirti phase of the movement — notably works of Bhagwan Josh, Chain Singh Chain, Sohan Singh Josh and Raghbir Singh — it is conceded that that part has yet to be adequately explored. More important is a focus on the distinct nature of the change in the framework of leading ideas, the approach towards religious affinities, grounds of distinction between comrades and adversaries, the choice of programmes and activities. The people enter new kind of politics with a stock of inherited assumptions and attitudes. Very often they themselves are not fully aware of these and we notice the difference between declared ideas and their attitudes in action. The change in dispositions or what the French call mentalities is not easy. Sohan Sing Josh referred candidly to the ambiguities in his mind and the difficulty of grappling with them. Bhagat Singh also pointed to that kind of struggle he had to wage to overcome the ambiguous pulls in his mind.

There are two other issues for serious study and dispassionate reflection both in our approach to the understanding of history and its relevance to those of us who have affinities with the Ghadar heroes. One relates to incidents of factionalism and liquidation of individuals described as spies or traitors. Were these factional feuds a reflection of ideological differences or a power tussel for control of resources or for other non-ideological factors? In the US Government’s Un-American Activities report and in Ghadari te Kama, of Baba Niranjan Singh Dhillon edited by Kesar Singh we find a list of names of those Indians, 42 in one source, who were liquidated. Dhillon in his diary wrote about “Desh dharoiyan noon sudharan lai ik lehar challi “ — a movement launched to liquidate the traitors”; because they wanted to capture the office of the party. This is well known problem with movements which put a premium on loyalty to one line, secrecy and the legitimacy of the use of weapons to deal with differences or dissent.
The other relates to a dispassionate evaluation of the place and role of martyrdom in the revolutionary movements. The Ghadar literature prominently glorified a romance for martyrdom. In the later writings and poems of Ghadarites, even after adoption of communist ideology, we see the emphasis on sacrificing lives. Did it reflect a conviction that adversary was far too powerful to conquer, so that sacrificing the life was the only great contribution one could make so as to inspire others?. Shaheed Bhagat was honoured mainly on that count. It is only recently that effort has been made to focus on his ideology, his writings and his larger role in the people’s democratic struggle. The editor in his note in Ghadari te Kama. published about 15 years back pleaded for more publications on Ghadar history for the reason that “If we failed in giving the history of our martyrs to our coming generations, then how could the plant of martyrdom grow and come to blossom?” Would that be the purpose of writing the history of Ghadar movement.
These are some of the suggested points for further study and research on the movement.

Harish Puri


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